Stanislav Grof, psychologist and psychiatrist

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Is it morally right to do research using psychedelic drugs such as mescaline, LSD, or DMT using human subjects? Much laboratory research has been done using animals already, and someone may argue that there is no need to study these dangerous substances in human beings. I will argue otherwise.

All three of these drugs, as well as other psychedelics, are widely abused–and that is one of the dangers of research–the press will find out about the research, disseminate information about it, and some non-addicts will read about the research and say, “Now that drug seems interesting–I think I’ll try it.” Ergo, we have more addicts than ever. But I would argue that that danger is exaggerated. Knowledge of mescaline and LSD has been public for many years, and DMT has become increasingly known since the 1990s. Mushrooms have been used for centuries, and ketamine has been widely abused since the 1960s. I do not see how human trials could publicize these drugs any more than they already have been–and even if they do, dangerous side effects and bad trips will also be publicized, scaring many people away from trying them.

The main reason I support psychedelic research with select groups of human subjects is that some mental illness is intractable to current treatments. Some cases of schizophrenia, for example, are so severe that current therapy does little or no good. Some researchers, such as Stanislav Grof, have used LSD in the treatment of schizophrenics. Other conditions, such as depression, can be so severe that only electroconvulsive therapy does any good, and the good that is does is only temporary. Plus, ECT carries with it the risk of brain damage. If some psychedelics could be used to treat these intractable cases of schizophrenia and depression more effectively than current treatments, especially if such research is backed up by animal studies, why not try it using select subjects. Now for subjects able to give informed consent, they should be thoroughly warned about the risks of such studies. For subjects who are mentally incompetent, the family member or person with power of attorney should be given sufficient information to give or withhold informed consent based on his interpretation of the patient’s prior wishes. If risks are thoroughly explained, and the patient has not been helped by any other treatment, and informed consent is given, I see no ethical problem with attempting to determine whether a psychedelic drug can help the patient. A critic may reply, “What about the risk of harm, both physical and psychological? What about the risk of future addiction caused by the study?” If current treatments, such as ECT, can harm the patient and only give a temporary reprieve from the illness, a study using psychedlics most likely would not do more harm than prior treatments–and it may help. As far as the risk of addiction, that comes with the territory of any drug that helps a patient feel better. Should we stop research on painkillers because some patients become addicted to them?

The FDA has been very conservative in approving studies with psychedelics. Part of this caution is necessary to prevent harm to human subjects. And no one wants to go back to the days when the U. S. Army and CIA were secretly giving LSD to soldiers–one soldier committed suicide. The FDA has the right to leave no stone unturned–I would not want to be the FDA agent who helped pass a study that ended up harming research subjects. But sometimes regulatory agencies hear the word “psychedelic” and are afraid to support any research involving such drugs, even if they potential to treat intractable mental illness. Hopefully some balance can be found between the absolute necessity of protecting research subjects and the desire to find new drugs to help those who cannot be helped with current therapies.

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